HARRISBURG — Registering to vote and voting itself could be easier under proposals introduced at the state Capitol.
Lawmakers are looking for ways to address poor voter turnout and concerns that too many voters feel like their votes don’t matter.
Fewer than 22 percent of Pennsylvania’s registered voters turned out to vote in last month’s primary, said Wanda Murren, a spokeswoman for the state Department of State.
The House state government committee convened a meeting last week to air out more than a dozen bills that would reform the way the state runs its elections.
There’s additional legislation aimed at changing the way the state draws the political boundaries for state and federal legislative districts, said state Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, the chairman of the state government committee. Redistricting proposals will be considered separately, he said.
Advocates welcomed the attention being given to election reform bills in both chambers of the General Assembly, said Ray Murphy, state coordinator for Keystone Votes and deputy director of Pennsylvania Voice.
“It’s incredibly encouraging that lawmakers in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle continue to engage in meaningful discussions about proposals that would update Pennsylvania’s election laws, something that hasn’t happened in a generation,” Murphy said.
“Work schedules, educational pursuits and family commitments vary dramatically among voters, all of whom have an important stake in the outcome of our elections. The system needs to be updated so none of them are penalized by an archaic system that creates barriers to voting.”
Everett said last week's meeting was intended to demonstrate the “width and breadth” of the voting reform proposals on the table.
They included measures that would call for:
• Automatic voter registration
• Pre-registering teens so they are eligible to vote as soon as they turn 18
• Making absentee ballots available to more people
• Requiring the state to accept absentee ballots postmarked before the election even if they arrive in the mail after the election
• Requiring employers to allow workers to leave work to vote
• Eliminating straight party voting as an option on the ballot
• Opening the primaries to more voters
The last measure prompted the most debate in the state government committee. It’s also an issue that has gotten the most widespread attention at the Capitol since Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati of Jefferson County backed an open primary plan.
The plan proposed by Scarnati, and introduced as House Bill 192, would allow people registered as independents to vote in either major party’s primary.
State Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Dauphin, noted that he tried to run for governor as an independent in 2006. He failed to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot. In 2014, he ran for state House as a Republican and won.
Diamond said that under Pennsylvania’s current law, “it’s free to change party” so that independents can vote in any primary they want by simply changing their party registration.
Rather than carve out a reform for independents, Diamond said the state could consider changing the primary rules so that any voter could vote for any candidate in the primaries, he said.
On the Senate side of the General Assembly, the open primary measure “seems to be getting momentum,” said state Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, the chairman of the Senate state government committee. Folmer’s committee held a three-and-half-hour hearing on Scarnati’s SB 300 and 12 other election reform bills on April 30.
Folmer said the other reforms include a constitutional amendment proposal that would allow people to obtain absentee ballots for any reason. Other reforms included in the Senate bills would include creating voting centers, where any resident in the county could vote; another that would allow counties to consolidate smaller voting precincts; and a measure that would alert young people when they turn 18 that they are eligible to register to vote.
Folmer said those Senate proposals were inspired by conversations with county judges of elections.
He said the measures will begin to move out of committee once it becomes clearer that there is consensus that they would pass in the full Senate.
“If you don’t have the votes, there’s no point in moving them,” he said.
Those measures aren’t the only ideas on the table.
A group of Democrats in the House and Senate announced legislation last week that would allow voters to be automatically registered to vote whenever they interact with a state government agency. Pennsylvania currently has a Motor Voter Law which allows people to register to vote when they get a driver’s license. Senate Bill 608 and the companion House Bill 1556 would provide the same convenience to people using any state government service.
Micah Sims, executive director of Pennsylvania Common Cause, joined lawmakers announcing the legislation at the Capitol last week.
“The goal is voter turnout,” he said.
John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.